On October 29, 2009, the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum & Library welcomed Dr. George Nash, independent scholar and author to speak on President Herbert Hoover’s impact on the Great Depression. The lecture was held at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, introduced Dr. Nash.
“I come here tonight neither to praise Herbert Hoover nor to bury him [audience laughter], but to understand him and in the process, to rescue him from some of the mythology that now surrounds his name. The distinguished historian John Lukacs likes to say that the principal task of a historian is the reduction of untruth. The reduction of at least a few half truths is one of my aims in this lecture.
Often it seems that Herbert Hoover has become the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics – he gets no respect. Other unpopular presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman have recovered their reputations posthumously. A few, like Ronald Reagan, have lived to see their ratings rise. Some presidents, whom historians deem mediocre, such as Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, are conceded in retrospect to have possessed commendable integrity. But not Hoover – at least not in our media and political culture of 2009.”
“During Hoover’s long and productive ex-presidency – he lived longer as an ex-president than any other holder of the White House office – he came to be revered by many in the GOP. His philippics against the New Deal inspired many of the party faithful. A patron of Human Events magazine, the Freeman magazine and other conservative causes, he was admired as a benevolent grandfather figure on the American right. To his liberal opponents, and a considerable number of voters in those years, his name continued to connote hard times and failed leadership. But to his conservative supporters, it conveyed an image of resilient rectitude. When Hoover died in 1964 however, his political comeback died with him. And within a decade-and-a-half, his image radically changed. In the 1980s, rather, even before then, it was changing, but late in his life just before he died, he was being acclaimed as the greatest Republican of his generation. So you might say his life ended on a note of greater respect. But, by the 1980s, he was being likened on the right to Jimmy Carter, who at least at that time, was being considered a failed president and being often compared to Hoover.”
“I would like to suggest to you that both of these stereotypes, the liberal one and the conservative one, are based in part upon mythology. The first myth, the liberal one – the one that most people in this audience probably grew up on – is that Hoover was a timid conservative who, as president, responded too little and too late to the challenge of the Great Depression. But Hoover, in the fall of 1929, was not an unalloyed conservative like his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge. He was an unabashed governmental activist for his time and a self-styled Republican of the progressive Republican brand who had supported Theodore Roosevelt for president in the Bull Moose campaign of 1912.”
“What are the overriding lessons of the Hoover presidency? On what grounds may he properly be criticized? For intervening in the economic crisis too little, or did he intervene too often and too much? This, it seems to me, is the crucial question, one with profound implications for our national self-understanding and future public policy. It is a question that historians are still debating 80 years after the crash.
As you ponder these issues, I beseech you – be wary of the pitfalls of present-minded preoccupations and the lure of sound bite certitudes. With Herbert Hoover, or anyone else, resist the temptation to select a sliver of the past as a basis for broad historical judgment. Above all, remember the context.”
Gleaves thanks Dr. Nash for his lecture by presenting him with a Ralph Hauenstein tote bag.
Dr. Nash poses for a picture with Hauenstein Center and Ford Museum staff. Pictured left to right: Joe Calvaruso, Gleaves Whitney, George Nash, and Elaine Didier.
Dr. Nash signs a copy of his new book Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism, for a member of the audience.
George Nash visits with Leadership Fellow Olivia Dorgan after the book signing.
Ben Lockerd, George Nash, and Gleaves Whitney pose for a picture at the reception prior to the lecture.
Brian Flanagan visits with leadership fellows Selma Tucker and Michael VandenBerg at the reception